The Bow: Rei

Every society in the world has developed various methods of greeting each other. We in the West are most accustomed to the common handshake. Yet do we know that there are special rules for delivering a proper handshake? A firm grip is usually highly acceptable but to grab, squeeze and rapidly pump the hand up and down is not. To shake a person’s hand while your opposite hand is in your pocket is not polite. Holding your hand out in a limp dishrag manner is also unacceptable. In a very polite society, the woman extends her hand first to the man and not visa-versa.

Some people greet each other with a single kiss on the cheek, while others kiss on both cheeks as in France. In Russia, three is the rule. However, is the kiss from the lips to the cheek or cheek to cheek?

In some societies within the Middle East a very formal verbal greeting is made followed by a semi-bow. In Malaysia, both hands are used to touch the other person’s hands and then they are brought back to the chest area. In Sri Lanka, the palms are placed together under the chin followed by a slight bow. In India, the palms are placed together in a praying like position followed with a nod. In Portugal, men embrace each other while patting each other on the back. In Zambia the right hand is extended while the left is placed under the right elbow.

In karate-do, we use the Japanese bow or rei. This bow has many different meanings and is used for different circumstances. For example the bow can be used as a greeting, an apology, a taking of leave, a gesture of respect, religious meaning, virtually during any social discourse.

There are definite protocols when bowing. Of great importance is the understanding that the karate-ka of lesser rank must bow first and lower than the higher ranked individual. When one karate-ka bows to another, the other karate-ka must return a bow.

There are three distinct methods of bowing:

KEIREI – The formal standing bow that is used when addressing the instructor, when showing respect to the dojo and respect to others. Feet are together, hands at sides open palmed, bend at waist with eyes down.

KENKO RITSUREI – This is a fighting salutation used to show respect for your partner or opponent. Feet apart, hands extended slightly outward with closed fists, bend at waist, eyes on opponent.

ZAREI – this is the formal seated bow. Zashiki is seated etiquette. While sitting on the knees, bend at waist, place open left hand on the floor followed by the right open hand, eyes down, straighten up while returning the right hand to the knee followed by the left.

Bowing is a sign of common courtesy and respect. Within the Kenryukan, the bow has absolutely no religious significance and is, as mentioned above, a gesture of respect and mutual courtesy.


The following is a partial listing of examples when bowing is appropriate:

  1. Bow when entering and leaving the dojo.
  2. Bow before entering or leaving the mat area.
  3. Bow to the instructors before addressing them.
  4. Bow to the instructors after addressing them and thanking them.
  5. Bow to the Shomen.
  6. Bow upon receiving an award or promotion.
  7. Bow to your partner before you start practicing.
  8. Bow to your partner after completing practicing.
  9. Bow to your partner if you committed an error.
  10. Bow when leaving the dojo.